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In Defense of the Pope

Posted By Alan M. Dershowitz On April 13, 2010 @ 12:11 am In FrontPage | 188 Comments

Having criticized particular Catholic cardinals for blaming everything–including the Church’s sex scandal–on “the Jews”, let me now come to the defense of the Pope and of the Church itself on this issue.  To begin with, this is an extraordinarily complex problem, because the Church has at least five important traditions that make it difficult to move quickly and aggressively in response to complaints of abuse.

The first tradition involves confidentiality, particularly not exclusively the confidentiality of the priest with regard to the penitent.  But there is also a wider spread tradition of confidentiality within the Church hierarchy itself.

Second, there is the tradition of forgiveness.  Those of us outside the Church often think, perhaps, that the Church goes too far in forgiving.  I was shocked when the previous Pope immediately forgave the man who tried to assassinate him.  But this episode and other demonstrate that the tradition of forgiveness is all too real.

Third, there is the tradition of the Church regarding itself as a state.  The Vatican is, after all, a nation state.  The Catholic Church is not big on the separation of church and state, as are various Protestant denominations.  The Catholic Church, like Orthodox Judaism, believes that matters affecting the faithful should generally be dealt within the church, without recourse to secular authorities.

Fourth, the Vatican prides itself on moving slowly and in seeing the time frame of life quite differently than the quick pace at which secular societies respond to the crisis of the day.

Fifth, the Catholic Church has long had a tradition of internal due process.  Cannon Law provides for scrupulous methods of proof.  The concept of the “devil’s advocate” derives from the Church’s effort to be certain that every “t” is crossed and every “I” is dotted, even when it comes to selecting saints.

None of these explanations completely justify the long inaction of the Church in coming to grips with a serious problem.  But they do help to explain how good people could have allowed bad things to happen for so long a period of time.  Nor is the Catholic Church the only institution that has faced problems of sexual abuse.  Every hierarchical body, especially but not exclusively religious ones, has faced similar problems, though perhaps on not so large a scale.

The problem of hierarchical sex abuse has only recently emerged from the shadows.  Singling out the Catholic Church, and for stereotyping all priests  is simply wrong.

Pope Benedict, both before he became Pope and since, has done a great deal to confront the issue.  He changed the policy that kept allegations of abuse within the authority of local bishops, and he acknowledged that the local option had encouraged shifting abusive priests from parish to parish, thereby hiding their sins from potential new victims.  He also met with abuse victims and recognized their victimization.  Nor has he tried, as other members of the Vatican hierarchy have, to publicly blame the problem on “the Jews”, “the media,” and others.

It is obvious that despite Pope Benedict’s good efforts, more must be done, and not only by the Catholic Church but by all institutions that have experienced hierarchical sexual exploitation.  They must create structures that assure prompt reporting, a zero tolerance policy and quick action, so long as these processes are consistent with due process and fairness, not only to alleged victims but to the accused as well.  It’s easy to forget, in the face of real victims with real complaints, that there have also been false accusations as well.  Processes must be put in place that distinguish true complaints from false ones.

Most important, this tragedy should not be used as an excuse to attack a large and revered institution that does much good throughout the world.  Blame must be placed with precision and praise should be given with precision as well.  The eleventh Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Stereotype, must never be forgotten.


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